Wasilla public library back in the news again

The Wasilla Public Library was back in the news again last week after local paper Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reported that the library had decided not to shelve two children’s books dealing with homosexuality donated by a gay activist in California. The two books were  “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy’s Roommate," both of which are controversial titles whose presence in libraries and schools is regularly challenged.

The library had already been the subject of much media scrutiny last month, after questions were raised about conversations on censorship that Sarah Palin had with the town's librarian during her tenure as mayor.

Fittingly, the books were donated to the Wasilla library during Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s celebration of the freedom to read. (Fittingly, because both books are so often on the Banned Books list.)

The donor was Michael Petrelis, a San Francisco man who has a popular blog on with gay and lesbian issues. “I’m going to send copies of both books just to make sure they’re on the shelves,” Petrelis is reported to have said in an interview.

But the books are not on the shelves of the Wasilla library. The town's library director K.J. Martin-Albright said they failed an approval process, not because of their content, but rather, according to the Frontiersman, because they are "poorly constructed, lacked engaging illustrations and seemed to lack the ability to engage young readers."

“Anything on the library has to earn its real estate,” said Martin-Albright last Wednesday.

The two books will be sold at a book sale to raise money for the library.

A small incident, but it goes to the heart of some of the questions faced by communities and their libraries. For those most concerned about protecting children the question would be: Doesn't a library have the right to exercise discretion as to what appears on its shelves? If not, isn't there a valid concern that unworthy and even dangerous books could end up in a town's collection?

But for those most concerned with civil liberties, the questions would be: Isn't an approval process potentially subject to abuse? Might not a librarian use terms like "poorly constructed" as an excuse to exercise a form of censorship?

These are big questions and they will continue to be fodder for debate, long after Wasilla has left the headlines.

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